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Knight reaches musical daylight

By Brian Steinberg, March 1998

You might say Chris Knight wants to be a Steve Earle in a world that already has one.

His songs hit hard (Check out "Love and a .45," which tells us "one'll kill you/one'll keep you alive," but never tells us which does what). The music is spare. And Knight's demeanor is full of earnestness and sincerity.

"It was something that I always wanted to do," he says of writing songs while taking a short break from rehearsing with his band. "I heard Steve Earle in '86. I started writing songs three months after I heard "Guitar Town" (Earle's now-classic debut album). I just liked where he was coming from with his writing. I identified with it, and I felt I could come from the same place, inside of me, writing that way."

Knight's self-titled debut contains 12 songs striving for the exact mix of complexity and raw, heart-on-your-sleeve emotional fervor Earle has distilled so well. "Try not to think of music so much as something to dance to," Knight explains. "Think of it as, maybe, literature."

The story is the song, he says. "With me, it's a little more story-oriented. There's probably more literature than there is music." Knight counts John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy among his favorite authors.

Sounds like a good modus operandi for a man who declares he ought to be mayor of "a town somewhere named for how I feel" called Sorryville, and recounts an amorous Saturday evening by saying "I might not make church on Sunday, but I thank the Lord each night."

Knight comes to music after spending five years as a reclamation inspector for the Kentucky Department of Surface Mining. The Slaughters, Ky. native says he enjoyed the job for a variety of reasons, even though music has always been something he wanted to try.

"I don't really know what prompted me to do it," he recounts, describing the first time he sat down to write a tune. "I just sat down one night and a song poured out."

Here's a surprise: The tune was of the "girl-done-me-wrong" variety.

The writing began in 1985 and 1986. Several scattershot gigs followed, in several Kentucky country bars. "Basically, I was just writing songs and working towards getting a writer's deal," he explains. That would come in 1994.

Before donning the musician's mantle, however, the 37-year-old Knight spent his early years growing up in Kentucky and St. Charles, Mo. His father worked for a gas company and Chrysler.

Making Knight known to the rest of the musical world certainly won't be the world's easiest task. After all, current country radio trends like more syrupy stuff where the lyrics are as light as air. Rick Alters, Knight's manager, says he will focus on getting his charge seen as often as possible, whether that be on stage or in the paper.

"He's not like a lot of the country artists today," Alters explains. "He's so rural, he's country, but we just have to see where it falls."

In the meantime, some Nashville insiders are crowing about Knight's unreleased demo, the 25-song "Trailer Tapes." One critic has says this document is as stark and as powerful as Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska." Knight's record label, Decca, owns the cassette, and it seems unlikely listeners will hear it anytime soon.

"I guess we could have done something with it," Knight admits, but "a lot of it was rougher than I would have liked for it to be. A lot of it was just pre-production. Some of it was a lot better than others. I really like it, but I kind of wanted to go with the band thing and see what could happen to my songs."

Manager Alters says fans can look for Knight to open for artists like Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss. Emmylou Harris and George Jones. He may also get some dates opening for artists such as Jackson Browne or Bob Seger.

"He's never let me down in a live situation, whether it's with a band or by himself," Alters says.

As for Knight, the writing's the thing - as long as it's tempered with a dash of critical acclaim and public acceptance. "I want to make a bunch of albums and sell a bunch of albums," he says, "and just continue to write good songs and hope people consider me a good songwriter."